Once upon a time in a dark and dense forest there lived a voracious Lion. I am recalling and paraphrasing here a story from Masnavi by Mevlana Rumi. The growing appetite of the Lion and his regular untimely attacks notwithstanding, the animals of the forest held a meeting and came up with a solution to the threat. Everyday an animal would volunteer as a meal to the Lion so that the forest remains safe from the chaos and commotion. After much deliberation and convincing, the Lion did agree. Every day lots were drawn to decide the Lion’s meal and gradually order was restored to the forest. One day when the Hare’s turn came, he resisted the idea and instead offered a counter-strategy to overthrow the reign of the Lion. He deliberately delayed his visit to the Lion, keeping him famished and enraged. When he offered himself as a meal, the Lion turned furious and threatened to break the treaty with the animals. The Hare reasoned his delay by stating that two hares had been on their way to become his meals but while on the road they met another ferocious Lion:
“The other Lion wanted to gobble up both of us but I told him about you, so he kept my friend as a hostage. This was the reason for my delay.”
The Lion was infuriated and wanted to kill the other lion. The Hare directed him to a deep and dark well claiming it as the residence of the ‘other’ lion. When the Lion looked inside, he misrecognized his reflection and pounced upon it towards his own death.
I am reading the story here out of Mevlana Rumi’s moral and philosophic context because I am interested in the false duplicity created by the Hare that ultimately results in the Lion’s death. This story is a story, a story of a bygone era – an era of predator and prey, of self and other, of terror and terrorist – an era where there is a play of mirror and mirror images, a play of Ideal Ego and Ego Ideal with a possibility of life and death. This era was marked by a clear and visible duality of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, Michel Foucault’s perfect ‘Disciplinary Society’ so to speak, where discipline and regimentation of time was an integral and essential feature of society. Factory schematisation (shifts, body-at-work) regulated all the enclosures within the ‘Disciplinary Society’, be it Home, Prison or School. This was the framework of society in the 18th and 19th centuries that metamorphosed into something else in the later part of the 20th century with the development of technology, media and internet. Serving as an isthmus between these two societies and their epochs, Severance introduces a world centered upon a corporate setup within a factory (Lumon Industries) where frustrated employees are entangled in labour that they do not understand. Severance is an amazing and intelligent series with good characterisation, brilliant actors and a well-written plot on a theme that needs more cinematic attention, bringing about a series worthy of analysis. But like Kafka’s Messiah its analysis as well as its critique arrives late.
Stills from the critically-acclaimed Apple+ series Severance, 2022
Before his death in 2007, Baudrillard gave various lectures explicating the ‘Global order’ and ‘Globalization’ with the vocabulary and concepts developed in his oeuvre. Baudrillard maintains that we have moved into the ‘hegemonic’ world order leaving behind the order of ‘domination’. The order of domination works within the binaries/dualities of dominators and dominated, of slaves and masters. This was the preceding ‘factory’ age wherein there was an involvement of force and conflicts. The corresponding history of the age was the history of oppression and liberation. But the proceeding contemporary age is the age of ‘hegemony’ where the duals/binaries have disappeared into the reality of networks and virtual—marked by the event of “simulacra and simulation”—where we are our own slaves as well as masters, just as “we are all hostages, and we are all terrorists.” In an interview Baudrillard repeats the same:
“There is no longer a dual relationship. Everyone is an accomplice.”
I believe Jaun Elia hints at the same conviction when he writes:
Ab nahi koi baat khatre ki
Ab sabhi ko sabhi se khatra hai
There’s nothing to be afraid of now
Everyone endangers everyone else now
Disciplinary Society is a Panoptic space—a space of sight and surveillance—that maintains a sharp and clear division between the ‘beholder’ and the ‘scene’ or the ‘seer’ and the ‘scene’. Hegemonic Society is an obscene space—a space of hypervisibility—where the distance between the beholder and the scene, seer and the scene implodes not by a violent cessation of any single binary, but by ‘excess’. The binary, duality, dialectics for Baudrillard have given way to transparency, ecstasy, obscenity. The spectacle (Debord) has metastasised into the obscene, the panoptic (Foucault) into the cybernetic—a hegemonic space of networks and corporations.
Gilles Deleuze also registers the shift and calls the contemporary age—Control Society—a society wherein the difference between different disciplinary enclosures is no longer visible. In such a society, one surfs all along the space without being able to distinguish one enclosure from another. Corporations and technological advancements are the hub of such a society.
Table A: A schematic difference between Disciplinary and Control Society as theorized by Gilles Deleuze in his Essay “Postscript on Control Societies”
In the recent times, Byung Chul Han’s diagnosis of the shift seems apt and felicitous. Han calls the age a ‘Post-immunological Age’. For Han, Foucault’s ‘Disciplinary Society’ was immunological because in that society dualities (Public/Private, Inner/Outer, Self/Other) were still at work while a sort of otherness or negative was in place. For this reason, the Immunological Age could talk about dialectics, viruses, diseases where a foreign entity was attacking a normative self-present self. The present age thus is Post-immunological where Baudrillard’s ‘excess’ has become “the terror of immanence” giving rise to the ‘Achievement Subject’ and replacing the ‘Disciplinary Subject’. This Post-immunological subject is not bound by duty or obedience but by pleasure and inclination, for whose attainment the Post-immunological subject makes its self-malleable to perform multitasks. In doing this, the Achievement subject auto-exploits itself and becomes its own terrorist as well as hostage, master as well as slave. Byung Chul Han refers to this contradictory state of subjecthood that has been harmonized in his book The Burnout Society:
. . . it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. This labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.
This achievement subject, according to Han, is as bound as Prometheus. Only that in this story it is not the eagle but the subject itself eating its own liver.
Table B: Mapping out the differences between Immunological and Post-Immunological Society formulated in his book The Burnout Society by Byung Chul Han.
At the heart of all this is ‘labour’ and its relationship with ‘time’ and ‘technology. This is where Severance gets everything wrong. Severance is a clinical analysis but of a bygone era. Severance is a series based on the premise where a corporation (Lumon) offers the procedure of inserting a chip within the brain through which an employee is be able to separate their personal life from the professional. This is not a metaphor but a surgical operation carried out in a corporate lab through a procedure called ‘severance’. The procedure creates ‘innies’ (workers) and ‘outies’ (owners) whose life goes into a sort of dementia, separating the working self from the domestic self. Severence brings forth a mind-bending premise, a bizarre mixture of George Orwell, Philip K. Dick and the Wachowiskis, but it is one that fails because it arrives late by at least two decades. Severance is a seething criticism, but of the factory setup, of domination, of the disciplinary age, and of the immunological age.
Saturno devorando a su hijo / Saturn devouring his son
Francisco de Goya
Museo del Prado (Prado Museum), Madrid
The Macrodata Refinement Calamity
A painting from Severance
It is for this reason that the series unfolds in binaries or dualities of ‘innies’ and ‘outies’, or the personal and the professional. In fact, the very title and the eponymous procedure means to cut or to split. The setup of Lumon Industries is that of a Panopticon where they are continuously under surveillance. The formation of unions is strongly discouraged and the separation or animosity between the workers is discursively maintained. The disembowelment, for example, showcased in The Macrodata Refinement Calamity painting, where a violent siege by the Macrodata Refinement Calamity workers against Optics and Design workers is portrayed in the style of Francisco de Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. The expanse of vocabulary that Severance uses to put up its critique of the contemporary corporate life belongs to the immunological / disciplinary / domination age and thus fails to do what it promises. Severance, as a technique, is what a factory owner would rejoice in because as a capitalist what he needs is an uninterrupted labour time to then leave the labourer to indulge in their private life. This is exactly what a corporate owner would never want.
A still from the critically-acclaimed Apple+ series Severance, 2022
Severance as a technique is a death knell to all the owners in the era of late-capitalism. No corporation will encourage a surgical procedure of severance because it would mean losing 12 hours of labour time per day (apart from the 12 hours of wage labour) that an ‘achievement subject’ is willing to give happily with one’s own consent. A corporation will be interested in a procedure like severance only if it has some ulterior political motives, which the finale of Season I hinted towards. Severance could have been a scathing criticism of the contemporary times if the premise were reversed, i.e. the employees promote the procedure because they want to give the corporation only the typical eight to five hours of their life and own the rest of their time as personal time, something that the corporation is opposed to. A Severance-promoting group would then emerge as a militant group resisting the wholesale of the employee’s time and labour.
If it is not able to explore the political motives, the series will remain a perfect work of science fiction whose perfection betrays its own motive. The series becomes bearable to watch in the comforts of our internet-enabled rooms on digitally-enhanced TVs, mobiles and tablets produced and made available through corporations such as Apple. This may be primarily due to the fact that we have already left that immunological age and it seems like a heart–warming fiction that can never manifest within reality.